Rapid and broad-scale forest mortality associated with recent droughts, rising temperature, and insect outbreaks has been observed over western North America (NA). Climate models project additional future warming and increasing drought and water stress for this region. To assess future potential changes in vegetation distributions in western NA, the Community Earth System Model (CESM) coupled with its Dynamic Global Vegetation Model (DGVM) was used under the future A2 emissions scenario. To better span uncertainties in future climate, eight sea surface temperature (SST) projections provided by phase 3 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3) were employed as boundary conditions. There is a broad consensus among the simulations, despite differences in the simulated climate trajectories across the ensemble, that about half of the needleleaf evergreen tree coverage (from 24% to 11%) will disappear, coincident with a 14% (from 11% to 25%) increase in shrubs and grasses by the end of the twenty-first century in western NA, with most of the change occurring over the latter half of the twenty-first century. The net impact is a ~6 GtC or about 50% decrease in projected ecosystem carbon storage in this region. The findings suggest a potential for a widespread shift from tree-dominated landscapes to shrub and grass-dominated landscapes in western NA because of future warming and consequent increases in water deficits. These results highlight the need for improved process-based understanding of vegetation dynamics, particularly including mortality and the subsequent incorporation of these mechanisms into earth system models to better quantify the vulnerability of western NA forests under climate change.
Additional publication details
Projected future changes in vegetation in western North America in the 21st century